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Bill Conlin: Remembering Phillies traveling secretary Eddie Ferenz

IN THE PANTHEON of truly thankless jobs, major league baseball raveling secretary ranks somewhere between bomb-squad defuser and deckhand on a Bering Sea crab trawler.

IN THE PANTHEON of truly thankless jobs, major league baseball traveling secretary ranks somewhere between bomb-squad defuser and deckhand on a Bering Sea crab trawler.

The good news is you get to see 162 baseball games a year. And you not only get the bonus of spending most of the winter in Florida or Arizona setting up all the spring-training logistics, you actually arrange most of your team's exhibition schedule.

The bad news is that for 81 of those games, you are a concierge-to-go. You spend most of your 18-hour days and nights getting the players to the airport in timely fashion on buses that better be air-conditioned or Lefty will acquire his own breeze by kicking out a window. You hope that a Joe Hoerner, weary of waiting for a no-show bus in St. Louis, will not climb behind the wheel of a driverless bus and transport most of the team to the headquarters hotel.

You hope you are not Donald Davidson, who towered 3-6 and was the traveling sec for the Atlanta Braves when they had hellraisers like Eddie Mathews. You hope your room is not on the 28th floor in Cincinnati, where Donald took a half-dozen trips up and down upon check-in one day because the players refused to hit a button for him that was too high for his reach.

You pray that when the phone rings at an ungodly hour it is not the shattering news that a member of the traveling party has been found dead in his room. Or that you need to come down to the Rush Street District precinct to bail out the general manager.

Eddie Ferenz was there and did most of that. He did it for a long time, and nobody in the cockeyed history of the pastime ever did it better or loved it more than the onetime minor league hockey player from Alberta.

He died Saturday in an assisted-living facility in Yardley at age 74 following a long, long battle against a variety of ailments that led to his retirement in 1999 after 30 years on the job. He had replaced Charlie Meister as traveling secretary following the 1969 season after skating a few shifts as PA announcer for both the Phillies and Flyers.

I can sum up the man, nicknamed "Eddie Spaghetti" by his sidekick and mandated running mate, Paul Owens, with two conflicting words:

Tough and courtly.

A self-professed mucker not adverse to dropping the gloves during his time in the hardscrabble minor leagues of Western Canada, he had a high tolerance for the whining and abuse that comes with shepherding 25 athletes ready to pounce if the charter is late, the beer isn't cold or plentiful enough, the rooms aren't ready or the suite ordered by a high-salary star isn't to his liking.

Through it all, Eddie Ferenz had an ambassadorial demeanor that would have made Emily Post proud. He was an anomaly in a cussing-man's sport, where the F-bomb in its various iterations is used as punctuation. Ferenz rarely used foul language. And when he did, it was usually accompanied by a right hand.

When his daily team-related chores were done, it was time for overtime, the care and feeding - literally - of traveling GM Paul Owens. When those two got together, Ferenz intent on keeping the boss out of trouble and making sure he ate dinner, Owens intent on doing none of the above, it was sometimes so good it could have played on Broadway. You would see Ferenz at the ballpark the next day, red-eyed and weary. "How'd dinner go?" "Well, I had a fine meal of filet mignon, with a Caesar salad and sauteed garden vegetables . . .

"And the Pope?"

"The Pope had his usual, the goldfish . . . " That means Owens' meal consisted of the little goldfish crackers that are a staple of hotel bars.

Ferenz considered it a personal triumph when he took Owens to a Chinese restaurant in Chicago that featured spicy Szechuan cuisine and Paul ate a hearty meal. Every time the Phillies were back in Chicago, the Pope would say, "Hey, Eddie, let's go to that Saskatchewan restaurant." Ferenz would patiently correct his boss. "Pope, it's Szechuan, not Saskatchewan. Say SESH-wan." Owens had the needle working now. "Yeah, Saskatchewan. That's where you're from, right?" Eddie would bristle. "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, I'm from Alberta, not Saskatchewan."

You didn't want to push Eddie too far. He could go from courtly to confrontational in a heartbeat. One Saturday night in Montreal, most of the traveling party was enjoying an extended cocktail hour in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. It was getting loud and Ferenz and I were loudly discussing something I wrote about the ballclub that didn't set well with him. I forget the exact trigger, but we each threw a right hand that missed and suddenly it was a hockey fight with both of us flopping ineffectually on the floor. Rich Ashburn gave the defining description of what was scored a draw: "Those two looked like a couple of whales mating."

On another occasion, the charter to Newark was hours late. The ballclub was in a foul mood. A bad road trip was nearing critical mass. Righthander Dick Selma, a mean-spirited needler, was on the traveling secretary from the jump. He complained about every aspect of the trip.

When the flight finally arrived in Newark, the buses were a no-show and there weren't enough baggage handlers to offload the Phillies' equipment and luggage. During the long wait for the bags to start sliding onto the carousel, Selma strafed Ferenz with nonstop abuse. A Phillies bag dropped. Then another. Selma said something obscenely sarcastic. The next thing that dropped was Selma, flipped onto a Phillies suitcase like a sack of mail, knocked cold by a short Ferenz right to his button. There was a round of applause.

Let me add stubborn to tough and courtly. The pains started one night in Chicago. Eddie complained to trainer Don Seger it probably was something he ate. Seger suggested medical intervention. Ferenz declined. This went on the rest of the series and it worsened on a flight to Cincinnati. By now, he was feverish and racked with pain. For the first time in his career, he missed a game. Still, he refused a doctor's diagnosis. On the flight to Philly, he was so ill Seger had to stretch him on a makeshift bed in the back of the plane. On arrival, he was rushed to Jefferson Hospital, where he had emergency surgery for acute peritonitis caused by an appendix that had ruptured nearly a week before in Chicago. Against long odds, he survived.

Tough . . . Courtly . . . Stubborn.

Eddie Ferenz, a hockey mucker, lived a long baseball life. Speaking for the hundreds of people who knew him and loved him, the pleasure was all ours.

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